Finding my Religion in Rural Appalachia

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Mingo County

Written by Jordan Ball

Jordan Ball, 26 years old, is a United States Senate regional representative, Co-Director of New Leaders Council Pittsburgh, and an advocate for Appalachia. He has been featured in local and national publications, including “100 Days in Appalachia”, and was recognized in 2017 as a leading regional influencer by Pittsburgh’s “The Incline”.

My grandfather, “Poppy” Gene Jackson, found Jesus Christ when he was a couple years younger than I am now and earned a reputation as a straight shooter who preached up and down every holler in the coalfields of Mingo County, West Virginia. As he tells it, the reputation earned him praise from some, and disdain from others. Some folks couldn’t handle his sermons, and he was sometimes not invited back to the pulpit. That’s the cost of telling the truth, he says. The truth sometimes isn’t popular. I recently learned this when I started to preach the gospel – not of Jesus Christ – but of the beauties and complexities of rural Appalachians.

Rural Appalachia, seemingly a land of forgotten men and women, was re-discovered by authors, journalists, and pundits after last year’s stunning political upset. After decades of being largely ignored, residents have suddenly been confronted by opinions of scorn, antipathy, and occasional empathy from the average outsider. This has led many rural Appalachians to wonder: why did they forget about us?

If you take a trip from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Williamson, West Virginia, you’ll venture through resilient, diverse communities that have long confronted condescension from outsiders. I embark on the 309-mile trip twice a month, racing coal trains through the mountainous terrain, into the heart of the Billion-Dollar Coal Field, where I am an adopted son. When I arrive, I am immediately met with a sense of community and family, and I ponder to myself: why did they forget my people?

Butcher Holler gave us Loretta Lynn, who empowered women with songs like “The Pill”. The West Virginia-Kentucky border was a battleground for the infamous Hatfield and McCoy feud, and the region cultivated pioneers like Mother Jones, a dressmaker turned organizer, who mobilized working men and women around worker’s rights. The United Mine Workers stared down militarized resistance in Morewood, Pennsylvania, and miners from Southeast Ohio to Northern Alabama dug the coal that created the steel that built great American cities. During the 20th Century, tours of economically distressed communities like Inez, Kentucky by LBJ gave a face to federal anti-poverty programs also spearheaded by FDR and JFK, and the region has since become home to some of the world’s most consequential poets, artists, scientists, engineers, doctors, educators, and entrepreneurs.

Although my parents left Mingo County and moved me around big cities, I haven’t been able to stay away from my rural roots. It was in the coalfields where I learned how to drive and how to shoot a gun. It’s where I learned how to climb a mountain by foot and four-wheeler, and had my first real heartbreak. It’s where Aunt Darlene let me shadow her in the ER for a day, so I could witness a doctor re-attach a severed limb. It’s where I learned that wealth doesn’t have to be material, because those with little means can have an abundance of happiness. It’s where I developed a sincere appreciation for hard work, rugged individualism, biscuits and gravy, coal, and banjo pickin’. Most of all, it’s where I learned and earned my independence.

So after deep reflection and countless conversations with people of many political persuasions, I am convinced that many outsiders didn’t just forget about the good people of rural Appalachia; many abandoned them as well.

It’s disheartening to see that renewed interest in Appalachia is sometimes accompanied by both blatant and inferred disrespect for coal miners and their profession. Whether it’s the activists who insist that recognizing the dignity of mining is “romanticizing nostalgia”, or the politician who refuses to pass legislation that funds a miner’s health care or pension, our miners deserve better. Just as harmful is the uninspired comedian who stereotypes a diverse region as filled with homogenous, toothless, and racist people, or a journalist who defines rural communities only as opioid-riddled and economically distressed, without giving consideration to the vibrancy, entrepreneurship, and development that continues to transform the region. It’s the continual broad brushing, vilification, and defamation by those that are convinced that hard working men and women in rural America are motivated by malice that first offends Appalachians, and then leads to anger. So, is it any wonder that they reached their limits and flipped over the table?

But for every naysayer and critic, there are many well-meaning people whose empathy and intellectual curiosity reaffirm my faith in humanity. Many friends, peers, and colleagues are eager to challenge themselves to engage with folks they previously felt they couldn’t understand. And, of course there are some politicians, journalists, and ordinary Americans who have “gotten it” all along.

Rural Appalachians are responding with a clear message: Come visit our communities. Listen. Learn. We’re strong, diverse, and resilient people. We aren’t waiting for Superman, for our communities are already comprised of fighters – young and old, progressive and conservative, wealthy and poor, and people of all stripes, creeds, ethnicities, and religions – who work tirelessly to raise healthy families, develop strong communities, and yes – build the nation.

So like my grandfather, a fearless truth-teller and the greatest preacher I’ve ever known, I will continue to preach the gospel of Appalachia as I know it, and fight for my people, despite potential criticism. In the process of falling in love with my roots, I found my religion and purpose. This summer, the fiery preacher from Williamson, West Virginia who was saved in 1959, will baptize his grandson – me – in 2017, in the hollers that cultivated generations upon generations of our family. And as an adopted son of the coalfields, this is something I will never forget.

This article is featured in the 2017 print edition of Appalachian Magazine and may be purchased from the following link: Click here.

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